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War price tag pegged at $80-billion

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

WASHINGTON -- President Bush plans to tell congressional leaders on Monday that the war in Iraq will cost about $80-billion, administration officials said, three days after both chambers of Congress passed budget plans and authorized tax cuts without a war-cost estimate.

For weeks, White House officials refused to provide a cost estimate, saying they could not account for the various war scenarios.

But officials said Saturday that on Monday, Bush plans to tell congressional leaders he will ask for additional funding of about $80-billion.

The figure, which has ranged from $70-billion to $90-billion in last-minute deliberations, includes about $60-billion for combat and the first months of reconstruction, with the rest going to foreign aid, homeland security and humanitarian relief.

Administration officials began to speak of the war costs as Bush monitored the military progress with aides at the Camp David presidential retreat.

Administration officials still were working on the war-spending request to be shared with lawmakers, with Bush aides debating exactly what to include and whether to break it into several smaller requests.

Bush has not formally signed off on the size of the package but is expected to give his approval during a meeting before he talks to congressional leaders, the sources said. The full details of the proposal could be presented to Congress as early as Monday.

The White House plan to release a war-cost figure comes after Democrats expressed annoyance at the administration's refusal to provide them with estimates, even classified ones, of the possible costs of the war and its aftermath under various scenarios. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said Tuesday that he found it "preposterous" for the Senate to debate next year's budget when "this big question mark hangs out there, totally unaddressed."

Administration officials said they wanted to have the flexibility to scale back the request if the regime did not resist and that providing information about the cost would have sent signals about the scale of their plans, which would have complicated efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution.

The cost of the war has been a subject of speculation inside and outside the administration for months. In the fall, Bush's then-economic adviser, Lawrence B. Lindsey, put the cost at $100-billion to $200-billion. In January, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put the military costs at less than $50-billion. Last month, Pentagon officials suggested a range of $60-billion to $95-billion for the war alone.

Bush, asked about estimates during his news conference on March 6, doggedly refused to discuss specifics but described the benefits of the then-potential war as "immeasurable -- how do you measure the benefit of freedom in Iraq?"

That was for good reason, said Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., White House budget director.

"We really did want to wait to get a little better sense of what scenario we were facing," Daniels said Friday, two days after President Bush began the war with a try for a speedy end by killing Saddam Hussein. "Had there been a very quick resolution, clearly we would have sent a scaled-down request."

But many Democrats and a few Republicans suggested Bush had been stalling for another reason.

They said setting out the big price tag for the war and its immediate aftermath would complicate if not doom White House efforts to push through Congress a budget that makes room for Bush's latest round of tax cuts.

"It looks awfully suspicious," said Thomas Kahn, staff director for Democrats on the House Budget Committee. "There was a surreal nature to their budget. Bombs are falling over Baghdad, and there's not a penny in their budget for the war."

Faced with opposition from moderates in their party to a big new tax cut when war costs are unknown and the federal budget deficit is ballooning, the House on Friday just barely approved a budget outline that includes Bush's full $726-billion tax reduction proposal. To cover possible war costs, the Senate voted to set aside $100-billion of the proposed tax cut.

Daniels said there was no effort on the administration's part to delay disclosing its war cost figures until the new tax cut had gotten past its first big hurdles.

"These are completely independent events," he said, referring to Congress' consideration of the budget and the White House's supplemental spending bill. "While the supplemental will be an expensive proposition, in the context of 10 years, which is the time frame Congress has chosen to use for its budget resolution, it really makes very little difference."

-- Information from the New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.

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